18th Century “Method for Double Bass” found in Italy

by Luca Marzetti

Azure resembles a flute, blue a cello…

when it gets darker, it reminds the charming sound of the double bass”


In 2005, falling the 3rd Centenary of death of the italian composer Giovanni Andrea Angelini Bontempi (1625 – 1705), I was working with the baroque ensemble La Rosa dell’Umbria. We made some concerts of Bontempi’s music, which were organized by Music History chair of the University of Perugia. In the program of celebrations there were also some conferences in Torgiano and in Trevi of prof. Biancamaria Brumana, chair holder, who worked on cataloguing the works of Musical Archive of Perinsigne Collegiata of St. Emiliano in Trevi (Perugia). Dr. Renato Criscuolo, the violinist Valerio Losito and I, we asked to take a look to that archive, looking for the oratorio “Sant’Emiliano”, ordered by the cathedral of Trevi to Angelini Bontempi, when he was Choir-Master in the Collegiata of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello (Perugia). The music of that oratorio is supposed to be lost and only the libretto remained. Our researches did not succeed. We did not find the oratorio, but we found several unpublished works and this “Metodo per il contrabbasso” – “Method for double bass”, written by an Anonymous at the end of 18th Century.

The first question that I asked myself, it was: what kind of instrument it was written for? Well, it is important underline that it is a method for three stringed “Italian1” double bass, tuned in ascending fourths (A – D – G), even if there are some exercises that go the A on 3rd string (according to modern fingering), considered by the Anonymous as “la prima corda” – “the first string”.

This fact suggests several hypothesis about the Author, who seems to know the different types of instrument that can be found in Europe at that age, and in some cases, he let suppose he had studied abroad, especially in Germany, where 16 foot double basses played exceptionally C lower of the bass key, under the five-line stave, as suggests the manuscript of the 5th Brandebourg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as the Anonymous confirms in the Etude 8.

There are no informations about the bowing technique, but, presumably, this double bass player used the “italian” bow called “alla Bolognese” or “alla Dragonetti”. It was smaller compared to the bow for violin or gamba, and it had higher hair on stick, but the strong holding of the right hand “under” the grip of the bow let the player extract a powerful sound. This fact is confirmed by witnesses of that age, for example Charles Burney in his “Musical journey through Italy” (1770), in which he describes 10 double basses in a roman orchestra (versus very few cellos) as a moderna “drum-set”, underlining rhythmical function and obtained pulse “beating” on strings.

This bow and this technique are still in use in the German school. It seems derived by viola da gamba, whose, according to many musicologists, double bass is the only surviving descendant, in the modern orchestra.

At the moment, in Italy, it is in use the “French” bow, with lower hair on stick, which has a holding “up” to the grip, or also forward on stick, as it happens in French area, and it is derived by violin bowing technique. This technique gives more agility, especially on quick passages even if there is less power of sound. According to philology, French “baroque” bow for double bass is similar to the one for viola da gamba, but it is built using more wood and so it is more heavy and longer compared to the bow “alla Dragonetti”, even if it has less hair. Also in this case, the holding is “up” to the stick.

In the manuscript there are very few etudes for intonation, and left hand technique has a insignificant place in the treatise (only one page). This fact let intend that the instrument had gut frets. This praxis was derived by viola da gamba and it was in use until the first half of the 19th Century. Johann Joachim Quantz, in the 4th Section of his “Treatise on the flute”, composed in 1752, writes about “the one, who plays Violone”, and he says: “It is a real obstacle to clearness, when tere are no Frets on neck. Some people considered frets as something unnecessary and unimportant; but this false is not followed by virtuosos, who made with frets anything that can be done with this instrument. We can see that this instrument must be provided with frets, when it forms clear and intelligible sounds2”.

Moreover, it is important to say that frets on 16 foot instrument was useful for two reasons:


There were different temperaments (Vallotti, Werkmeister, Mesotonico, Equal and so on…), and frets let the player be more precise on intonation, because he had to press the note on fret;


Double bass gave rhythm and pulse; the frets let the sound of every note similar to the one of a open string, giving prominence to the “consonants” of sound, istead of “vowels”; it will happen the opposite when the great virtuosos of double bass, as Dragonetti, will take away the frets just to let the instrument “sing”.

About the role of double bass in orchestra, it can be useful the witness of Michel Corrette in his “Methode pour apprendre à jouer la Contre-Basse à 3, 4 et 5 cordes”, written in 1781: “Montclair3 e Sagioni4 had been the first double bass players at the Opera in Paris, and they were both very good composers; at the ages of Lully, this instrument was unknown. Later, double bass at the Opera was used only in storms, in underground noises and in invocations, making tacet all the rest of time. Today there are six double basses and they play anything, except for Recitative. We can say as a matter of fact that double bass makes all the parts shine with his harmonious sonorities5”.

Supporting my thesis about the use of frets on the instrument described by the Anonymous, there are moreover the last two “misterious” pages of the method, that are simply notes, with many erasures and corrections; but they can make reflect about needs of this instrument, especially on left hand.

There are some etudes on scales, which were used for phrasing and articulation; Finally we find a series of numbers which seems having no sense, but according to the Anonymous, “possono combinarsi in 720 modi diversi” – “can be combined in 720 different ways”. The Author gather together these numbers in three sections of the page.

The first group, up and right on the page:

11, 12, 21, 22 in ambi – (translation: in doubles)

111, 112, 121, 122, in terni – (translation: in terns)

211, 212, 221, 222

The second group of numbers is in the middle of the page on the left:

12 21/ 123, 132, 213, 231, 312 321 /

The third group, maybe the most important, is in the middle, on the right:

1234 1243 1342 1324 1423 1432

2134 2143 2314 2341 2413 2431

3124 3142 3214 3241 3412 3421

4123 4132 4213 4231 4312 4321.

I don’t think that the Anonymous was a cabbalist, but maybe he wants to give suggestions to his student with exercises to loose left hand6, which in “gambas’ language” are called “spiders”. We can have some gig to reflect on left hand technique on neck, and we cannot find correspondences neither in “official” German school, in which the fingering is 1 – 2 – 4, except for some virtuosos of Viennese double bass, as Sperger7 and Pichelberger8, nor in French and Italian, in which the fingering is 1 – 3 – 4. These two pages let suppose that the Author wants to use the fingering in 4: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, just like on the Viola da gamba and on G and D Violone (both 8 and16 foot).

This hypothesis let presume that this instrument was smaller and the use of a similar instrument is confirmed by Quantz: “If the instrument will be too big, or too strong tuned9, the sound will not be clear, nor pleasant and very few intelligible to ears10”.

A further confirmation to Anonymous’ reference to a “little” double bass which was very common in chamber music of that ages is that, some time ago, at the Flea Market of Pissignano, still in the province of Perugia, and very close to Trevi (the town in which I found the Method), I found a small sized instrument, dated more or less to the ages of the manuscript. This fact, after a long study on the Anonymous’ manuscript, let me “imagine”, suppose or maybe “hope” that it was “his own” instrument.

The “Metodo per il Contrabbasso” written by the Anonymous of the Collegiata of St. Emiliano is structured in this way:

1) Scale and leaps;

2) 13 etudes for solo double bass;

3) Cadences;

4) 4 Duets (for 2 double basses, but playable also with two low instruments as cello or bassoon)

5) Notes of the composer (the two “mysterious pages”), with exercises for phrasing on scales with the addiction of trillo, which is signed in the manuscript with a +11.

The style of the etudes refers to Mozart, Haydn and to the 13 aged Rossini of the “Sonate a quattro”, but also to the 3rd Brandenbourg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach12. This is very interesting for the musicologist, because at the end of 18th Century, there had not been the Bach discovery by Felix Mendelsohn – Bartholdy and very few people knew the works of the composer of Lipsia. We can confirm in this way that the Anonymous may have studied in Germany.

About my work on the etudes, I wanted to be very fussy on colours and articulations, in fact it seems that it was requested by the musical practice of Baroque and Early Classic Ages. In some passages I did not underlined colours, but I just let music play, because in some etudes the phrases are “moving” on their own. I think it is very useful to quote the “Method for the violin” by Leopold Mozart about articulations, in which scales are very tied, and he uses the “staccato” for the leaps, closing piano the cadenzas, escaping the “beats”, at least on double bass.

At the end of the “Metodo per il Contrabbasso” of our Anonymous, there are the Duets, in full classic style, in which teacher and student, they challenge themselves in a dialogue, starting in unison, then splitting in thirds, chasing each other and finally closing in unison. At that ages, the Anonymous should have a virtuoso technique and we can understand it by the ornaments, crushes, trills, triolets, reminding almost tarantella, especially in Duet N° 4. Surely, this author was italian and it shines with taste, even if he is not like Dragonetti (too much dandy to write a method, and considered by his contemporaries as a very “stingy” man both about money and about suggestions to colleagues) and he cannot be compared nor to Bottesini (too refined, too “romantic”, too brave and tight-rope, to stop on the neck). The Author of this Method is strictly a “double-bassist”, really technician, with harmony and composition elementary rudiments, but he is able to make the listener enjoy the “elephant”, which is learning to fly as a butterfly, as it will happen in the following Century with the great virtuosos (Anglois, Rossi, Bottesini, Mengoli, Billé ecc…).

His Duets are lovely, amusing, free and easy but maybe we can feel the weight of the role of “accompaniment instrument”, as we can see in some etudes of the method, based only on arpeggios.

It is important to say that, even if it hans not the organic unity and the fullness of the following methods, as Rossi-Anglois’, Billè’s, Bottesini’s, Mengoli’s, Caimmi’s, the “Metodo per il Contrabbasso” of this Anonymous is supposed to be an important document of a age in transit for double bass: by doubling instrument of continuo, it is turning to a real protagonist in orchestra, in chamber music and finally as soloist. Maybe the importance of this method can be compared to Bonifazio Asioli’s treatise, or to the “Concerto per il Violone ad uso del Kavalier Marc’Antonio Moncenigo”, written by Giuseppe Antonio Capuzzi, whose, presumably, our composer is contemporary or slightly antecedent. It raises many questions about the use of this instruments, and surely coming scholars will give more exhaustive answers.


Luca Marzetti (1975), after the diploma in double bass at the Conservatory of Music “F. Morlacchi” in Perugia and a degree in philosophy at the University of Perugia, he took up to “historical”double bass in baroque and early classic repertoire. He worked playing both double bass and G violone with several ensembles as La Rosa dell’Umbria, Accademia Barocca “W. Hermans”, Il Cantiere delle Muse, Academia Montis Regalis, International Baroque Cello Society, Musica Perduta, Ensemble Polyhymnia and Brunecker Akademie fur Alte Musik, performing in Italy and abroad.

1 The “Italian” double bass appears different from the German double bass or French one. In Germany, double bass is closet to 6 or 5 stringed D Violone , and it could have different tunings:


D – A – E – C – G – D;


C – G – D – A – E;


A – F# – D – A – F; ( “Viennese” Tuning).

In 1752, Johann Joachim Quantz talks already about a 4 stringed instrument, tuned in fourths as the modern one: E – A – D – G, and it is defined Controviolino – Counterviolin (having the opposite tuning compared to violin).

In France the 4 stringed double bass, according to Michel Corrette (1781), has already particolar features of the modern instrument and it was tuned: E – A – D – G. Still in France, the 3 stringed double bass is tuned in ascending fifths: G– D– A; 5 stringed instrument was tuned in fourths: F# – B – E – A – D. In Italy, until 1886, it will be used mainly the 3 stringed instrument. It is supposed to be derived by a 4 stringed instrument, which can be found in the Compendium Musicale by Bartolomeo Bismantova, (1677, revised in 1692) tuned (from the higher string to the lower) G – D – A – G. In fact the tuning was: A – D – G, or, exceptionally, it was necessary the “scordatura”, G – D – G.

2 Cfr. J. J. QUANTZ “Treaty on the flute” 1752.

3 Michel Pinolet de Montéclair (1667 – 1737) frenche composer, who entered as double bass player in the orchestra of the Opéra in 1699. Probably, he introduced double bass as a substitute of 6 strings violone.

4 Giuseppe (Joseph) Fedeli called Saggione (1680 – 1745), double bass player at the Opéra since 1737 until 1745.

5 Cfr. M. CORRETTE “Methodes pour apprendre à jouer la Contre-Basse à 3, 4 et 5 cordes”, Editions de Paris, 1781, Preface, p. 1.

6 About left hand fingering, it is signed as: 1 – index finger; 2 – middle finger; 3 – ring finger; 4 – little finger. About neck fingering on double bass, Italian and French school signs as:

1 – index finger; 3 – middle + ring fingers; 4 – little finger; the German school: 1 – index finger; 2 – middle finger; 3 – ring +little fingers.

7 Johann Matthias Sperger (1750 – 1812), double bass player and composer from Austria, he studied in Vienna since 1767. He worked since 1777 in the Hofkapelle of the Archibishop of Pressburg. In 1778, he became member of the Wiener Tonkunstlersozietat, for whom he gave many concerts as soloist. He was a very prolific composer: 44 symphonies, 18 concertos for double bass and orchestra, sonatas, rondos, dances, cantatas, choirs and arias.

8 Friedrich Pichelberger (1741 – 1813), double bass player of the Schikaneder’s theatre (Schikaneder was the writer of the libretto “Die Zauberflote”, put in music by W. A. Mozart). It seems that the Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra and the Sinfonia Concertante for Viola and Double Bass by Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf had been composed for him, he was a virtuoso and he was called “the brave Pichelberger”. There is also a “legend”: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was really fascinated by Pichelberger’s sister, and he wrote for him the tight-rope Aria “Per questa bella mano” K612, for bass voice, double bass and orchestra, just to converse with this woman, while her brother was in another room studying passages, that are very difficult.

9 Quantz means “with too tense strings”.

10 Cfr. J.J. QUANTZ “Treatise on the flute” 1752, 4th section.

11 As we can see in several manuscript of 17th and 18th Century. “+” is for “TAU”, 19th letter of the Greek and last of the Hebrew alphabet. It means at the same time infinity and “the end” of the phrase.

12 It is quoted in the Lesson 10, where we find an etude in E flat, in which the Anonymous writes: “Elafà § Magi”. Maybe Magi is the name of the composer, but there are no confirmations in the Archive of payments to this name. The last part of this etude, from bar 56 quotes explicitly the last movement of 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, transposed in another tonality.

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